Mid Semester Reflection

Chapter seven of Paul Starr’s book, The Creation of the Media, is titled “Great Transformations” and it addresses the emergence of a new legal and cultural framework of communication.[1] This chapter deals with the issues surrounding this new framework as it began to dictate the discourses surrounding sexuality and obscenity well into the turn of the 20th century.[2] What I found interesting about the reading is the way in which the text lays out the precursors and progression for “the crusade against obscenity” in the post civil war period, up until the interwar years.[3]

Understanding the events that laid the foundation for the censorship of obscenity in the media after the Civil War is necessary in order to see why and how the Victorian, and post Victorian Eras were shaped by such restrictions. I found it interesting that the northern defeat of the south in the Civil War yielded a moral reform movement despite the idea that the North in America is usually propagated as progressive and liberal. In this case, the then dominant sub power in America was utilizing “a typical instance of a regulatory reaction to an expanding market that threatened the sense of order”.[4] What I believe Starr is trying to unearth here is that the access of cheaper print layered with a diversifying population could very well lead to a challenge in traditional western philosophies surrounding sex. This idea can be solidified by the way in which some associates say this modern reform movement was a product of the pre Civil War Evangelical Christian Revival, which sought to demonize sex and obscenity as a form of moral decay.[5] Others contribute this animosity of obscenity during the prewar period because of the French Revolution going on at the turn of 19th century and the way in which some individuals romanticized political rebellion and sex to go “hand in hand”.[6] In understanding the pre war conditions surrounding peoples opinions about obscenity in the media it is not surprising that the post war period confronted it with even more animosity.

With industrialization increasing throughout the Victorian period there was a direct impact on the diversity of the population, which brought new cultures and ideas based around sex to the conversation trying to be suppressed by censorship in the media. I found it troubling that in the wake of diversity produced by the new immigrant influx due to industrialization that the repression of “obscenity” was seen as progress. This very repression, as seen through the increased level of punishment for those offending the anti-obscenity laws, produced a hypocrisy, which mostly effected the poor immigrant population and did not disturb the offensive mannerisms of the rich because they kept such actions private.[7] This point brings me to what I would like to learn more about this issue.

While Starr notes that is it difficult to verify the effectiveness of censorship I think it would be interesting to look at the arrest records during this period to understand how much race was a component in the repercussions of the Comstock Laws. Based on such findings we could continue to question, and potentially speculate quite a bit, how this period of incarceration due to obscenity charges being mostly against immigrants may or may not have paved the way for the parallels between race and incarceration today.[8] Another list of records I would be interested in looked at from this time period would be that of birth rates, as 1870 newspapers began to eradicate birth control and abortion advertising.[9] I disagree with Starr in this instance because I believe that we can measure the effectiveness of censorship by looking at data that had to do with birth, death and incarceration rates and how those numbers could have been directly transformed by a lack female reproduction knowledge or racism against the immigrant members of society with their differing understandings of sex and obscenity. The analysis to uncover those things would be immense but I find that it would be an interesting project to facilitate. I also believe I can say in general that the things that I find the most interesting and the things that I want to learn more about are surrounded in the components of this class that look at concrete events in history that have prompted the transition of something like the conversation surrounding obscenity or the circulation of the press. I enjoy understanding the progression of periods in history by looking at the before and after, almost like reversing that of a line of dominos lined up, standing next to eachother.

[1] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2004), 235.

[2] Starr, Creation of the Media, 250.

– The Comstock laws were not overturned until 1948 but in NY were largely unenforced in terms of crime reporting.

[3] The interwar years deal with the time in between WWI and WWII. Starr looks at these periods because the post civil war period yielded the change in direction of the media and when looking at it in the lends of WWI one can see the progression of this change in direction.

Also it should be noted that before civil war there was a much greater emphasis on freedom of speech but after war not so much due to the effects of industrialization and war. Roosevelt himself even quotes that weak moral can directly effect the strength of the military.

[4] Starr, Creation of the Media, 236.

[5] Starr, Creation of the Media, 237.

[6] Starr, Creation of the Media, 237.

[7] Starr, Creation of the Media, 238.

[8] Starr, Creation of the Media, 248.

[9] Starr, Creation of the Media, 248.


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